Showing posts with label The Death of Klinghoffer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Death of Klinghoffer. Show all posts

Monday, October 20, 2014

A debate about Klinghoffer - the British way

This is the civilised debate that ENO held about The Death of Klinghoffer and the nature of art before Tom Morris's staging opened here two years ago. The run itself was generally well received and passed without incident.

Parterre has provided an audio streaming of the opera from its world premiere in 1991 and a link to the libretto, so it is perfectly possible to make yourself well informed about the reality of its content if you so wish.

Update, 9.40pm: here is my article on Klinghoffer from The Independent in 2012

Friday, June 20, 2014

Organisations join forces to protest at the Met's 'Klinghoffer' decision

The National Coalition Against Censorshipthe National Opera AssociationArticle 19The Dramatists Legal Defense FundFree Expression Policy ProjectfreeDimensionalFreemuse, and PEN American Center have issued a statement opposing the Metropolitan Opera's cancellation of live HD simulcast of John Adams' opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, to about 2000 cinemas in 65 countries. They are urging the Met and its director, Peter Gelb, to reconsider that decision. According to Broadway World, further organisations are expected to join the protest. 

Ole Reitov, director of Freemuse, has commented (as quoted on Broadway World): "Whether self-censoring is motivated by pressure from corporate, social or political interests, cultural institutions should never forget, that once they accept such pressure they lose artistic credibility and signal lack of integrity."

The full statement from the NCAC is online here, but my computer is refusing to load it. I hope this is due to weight of traffic, and does not suggest some sort of online censorship of anti-censorship.

UPDATE, 22 June, 10.20am: If you only read one piece on this subject, make it this one, from a British-Israeli tenor who has sung in the opera:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

My take on the "Klinghoffer" debacle

How to turn a good contemporary opera into an eternal iconic masterpiece 101: suppress it. Comment piece now up on the webzine.

UPDATE, 19 June 6.40pm: Please read, too, Anthony Tomaasini in the New York Times: What 'The Death of Klinghoffer' Could Have Accomplished.

UPDATE, 22 June, 10.20am: If you only read one piece on this subject, make it this one, from a British-Israeli tenor who has sung in the opera:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Klinghoffer rings, clings and clangs

Yesterday was the opening night of The Death of Klinghoffer at English National Opera.

Rings: it's strong stuff, first of all. Tom Morris's staging is magnificent, overwhelming at times in the power of its imagery, dominated by the draining and dangerous Middle Eastern sun.

The concrete panels of that wall, the so-called "separation barrier" (it is a wall - I have touched the real thing), are present throughout. They not only provide the necessary claustrophobic resonances and contexts, but also form a screen for the film projections of the limestone hills, the rolling waves, and, for the finale of act 1, layer upon layer of graffiti. Some are grumbling that the wall wasn't there at the time of the Achille Lauro hijacking. The Death of Klinghoffer may have been written 20 years ago, but the issues are as current as ever and it would have been invidious for Morris to ignore how matters have progressed, or not progressed (those condemning the opera as anti-Zionist are in denial - this business is real and it won't conveniently vanish on demand). Besides, in certain ways Klinghoffer is very much an opera of its time - more of that later - and bringing it up to date for presentation now is an artistic necessity, even more than a political one.

Dance provides a marvellous opportunity to illuminate certain characters' inner feelings that might not otherwise emerge. Hats off to choreographer Arthur Pita, who has created a dance language that corresponds to the music, full of repeated fragments, patterns that build up associations, the physical depiction of the running and rerunning of memory and conflicted thought. Four men manoeuvre a figure representing Klinghoffer - perhaps the man he used to be in his youth? - while the wonderful Alan Opie (who has by then been killed) delivers the "aria of the falling body" against the backdrop of the terrible, hot sky. Omar, the terrorist who shoots Klinghoffer, is played by a dancer (Jesse Kovarsky) and says not a word: his fear and desperation are shown through his movements. As the British shipboard dancing girl (Kate Miller-Heidke) and her 1980s pop music remind us, it's the quiet ones you have to watch.

Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer partners Alan Opie in performances of great dignity, honesty and vulnerability. Their plight brings home the essence of this history of macrocosm and microcosm: two innocent, normal people are caught up in something not of their making and out of their control, their lives shattered as a result. The opera, at its core, is about how ordinary people are destroyed by world events. It is always the innocent who pay the price.

Christopher Magiera is a fine and believable Captain, thinking on his feet, especially touching in the scene where Mamoud (the eloquent baritone Richard Burkhard), a dead ringer for Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, opens up overnight and tells him his own story - an incident based, like many of the opera's scenes, on the captain's memoirs, extracts of which you can read in the programme. Superb vignettes by Kathryn Harries as the Austrian woman who describes locking herself in her bathroom and escaping unnoticed, all of it a first-rate take-off of Pierrot Lunaire sprechstimme; and by Clare Presland as the Palestinian Woman, implicitly Omar's mother, intensity suffusing every blazing note.

It's a huge score, full of marvels, embroidered with sizzling colours and layer upon layer of musical cause and effect; the inspired and beautiful choruses and the reflective arias for the Klinghoffers are perhaps its finest moments. The ENO chorus did the former proud and the orchestra ran, so to speak, a tight ship under the expert captaincy of Baldur Bronnimann. Rarely can it have been made so clear that "minimalist" is a misleading misnomer. The music is almost Wagnerian at times, in that the real action takes place in unfolding of the orchestral fabric, the singers floating over the top.

And what clings is its atmosphere. The aura of the music captures the same atmosphere I experienced every day when I visited the West Bank two years ago. This is what you breathe in at the background of each moment, even happy and relaxed ones: the quivering of nerve endings, the claustrophobia, the looming dread at the glimpse of a panel of wall or a soldier with a gun, the uncertainty of exactly what may lie around the next bend of the road through the hills. It's all there, in the trumpets, the pizzicati, the flickering repetitive figures on keyboard, or the way a quiet chorus can build up so fast to unanticipated levels of violence.

What you experience in this opera is therefore something almost miraculously authentic. It is similar to the way Puccini captures the emotional truth of Rodolfo at the end of La Boheme when he realises Mimi is dead - those stark horns evoke in one precise stroke one's own memories of the moment a loved one died: that was it, that was how it felt, that is it exactly. This particular form of genius is reserved for only the most empathetic of operatic composers - something that no writer or visual artist can convey with such instant visceral impact.

And then... the clangs. It's the words. Not the structure - a deconstructive collage of impressions is a fine device for conveying the fractured memories of a past event and furthermore provide much-needed variety. Nor the details of the scenes, many of which are based, as we've seen, on reality. And I find it admirably "even-handed". But the details of the lines, the images, the metaphors, the words themselves, had me longing for a red pen to plaster over the surtitles. There are too many words: and they are cumbersome words, syllabic, complex, very wordy words, and often meaningless words - poetry that might (perhaps) work on the page, but that must have given Adams the mother of all headaches. When he described the other day the storminess of his working relationship with the poet Alice Goodman, I thought he was joking. Now I'm not so sure.

How do you work with a libretto like that? How do you even think it is suitable for setting? It takes three to five times as long to sing a word as to speak it, and there is no doubt that opera requires prima la musica - the words must serve musical needs. Perhaps they do, in their own way. But still, is it a good idea to throw the audience off balance, distracting you, jerking you out of the flow to wonder what exactly an antlion is when you are supposed to be caught up in the emotions of the hijacking's aftermath? I mean, we're not all David Attenborough. And it's equally startling to hear a reference to the Dome of the Rock in the Chorus of Exiled Jews, which depicts a couple implicitly thrown apart by the Second World War and reunited unexpectedly after many traumas. The man compares the woman's scars to the holy sites of Israel, but, not to put too fine a point on it, the Dome of the Rock itself is not a site holy to Judaism - it is its location, the Temple Mount, that is. This, and the antlion, are only two meagre examples. I don't remember this being such a problem in Penny Woolcock's film - but that had been heavily cut. (Here is Wikipedia to explain the antlion.)

The words, too, give the opera its slightly dated feel. Self-indulgent, pretentious poetic stuff in opera libretti was very much a feature of opera of the 1960s-80s (Klinghoffer's premiere was in 1991). Its ultimate death blow, I suspect, was Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003)Good, concise, beautiful poetry is another matter: Birtwistle's The Minotaur has a libretto by David Harsent that is a work of art. Time to take another look at how Da Ponte did it.

The other thing that clanged - or rather made a very small clunk - was the protest luridly predicted by the Sunday Telegraph, which materialised as one (1) man with a placard outside the theatre - he has no doubt achieved the not-inconsiderable solo feat of being mentioned in each and every write-up.

In time, Klinghoffer should come to be regarded as what it is: a fine, thought-provoking opera, representative of its era, flawed but with many beauties, the latter including passages that show Adams at his most inspired. It will be no more scandalous, a hundred years from now, than Le nozze di Figaro - the original play of which was thought, in its day, to be condoning class conflict.

Six more performances until 9 March. Do go and see it. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

'Klinghoffer' opens tonight John Adams came to London a day early and English National Opera held a Friends event at which artistic director John Berry interviewed him about his life and work. I went along to listen.

A thoroughly entertaining discussion: although he must have been extremely jet-lagged, the jokes flowed free and fast, if with serious points behind them. Audience member: "Was there any moment in your career when you felt able to say to yourself, 'Now I am a successful composer'?" Adams: "Possibly last Tuesday...but by Wednesday it was all gone."

The production, by Tom Morris - of War Horse fame (and more) - promises to be much more naturalistic than some of the other stagings over the years. Except, of course, for Penny Woolcock's screen version, which was shown on Channel 4 some years ago. It was filmed aboard a ship and the performers had to be shown how to hold and fire Kalashnikovs. "That was a bit too naturalistic for me," said John Adams. "Oh," said John Berry, "we're doing that as well."

Fascinating, also, to learn that originally Adams had planned the story of the hijacking and murder to occupy only the first half of the opera, with the second half a political black comedy featuring Margaret Thatcher and co. But when he began to compose the opening chorus, he realised that he had something altogether more serious in hand.

He was frank in describing his working relationship with Alice Goodman, the librettist, as stormy - "it made the Israeli-Palestinian situation look like a love-fest!" - and gave us a taste of the most difficult line of poetry he's ever had to set. It's in the captain's scene, when he reflects on the pleasures of being alone with the waves and time to think, though couched in somewhat different language. Listen out for it.

Interesting insights, too, into Adams's background and the attitude during his upbringing towards his hopes of becoming a composer. When he started out (he has just turned 65) it was, he thinks, almost impossible to contemplate a career writing music full-time; that situation has changed considerably over the decades. Nevertheless, he remarked, his parents never tried to push him towards a proper job like law or medicine; they wanted him to be an artist. He says that he always feels strange writing his occupation as "composer" on landing cards at airports, et al, and wonders if the immigration official will say "Composer?...just step over here a minute, sir..." - but for one occasion in the UK when the guy said to him, "Oh, I love Harmonium..."

One audience member asked him what he would have done had he not been a composer. Adams looked momentarily stumped - he eventually said that he enjoys writing, has a blog, has written a book and writes book reviews for the New York Times "because it's fun", so could have contemplated "something literary". But I think it's clear that his vocation as composer is so much part and parcel of who he is that he couldn't really imagine life without it at all.

Full production details and booking here.

I took along my CD of Klinghoffer for him to sign. And, dear reader, though I blush at such immodesty as to tell you what followed, the great composer then thanked me for the piece I wrote in the Independent the other week and said that it was the most eloquent article about Klinghoffer he had read in years. Dear reader, this does not happen every day. I guess that must be how Julius Korngold felt when Brahms got in touch (though hopefully any resemblance stops there). Here is the article again, in case you missed it.

And here is a trailer from ENO in which director Tom Morris talks about the work - followed, below, by extracts from, and reactions to, the dress rehearsal.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

"Klinghoffer" looms

Later this month ENO's new production of The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams's opera about a Palestinian hijacking at sea that took place in 1985, will bring this extremely controversial work to a full staging in the capital for the first time. It's taken 20 years for any opera house in London to dare to produce what's probably Adams's most important opera to date. Here are my thoughts on the matter from today's Independent, as well as chats with librettist Alice Goodman, conductor Baldur Bronnimann - who has worked in both Israel and the West Bank - and ENO's artistic director John Berry.

Monday, November 07, 2011

John Adams on 'Klinghoffer' in London & NY

My goodness, the folks at ENO and the Met are brave. They're staging a co-production of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, directed by Tom Morris (of War Horse fame). ENO will give seven performances, opening on 25 February. It will be the London stage premiere of this American supremo's most controversial opera. The Los Angeles Music Center Opera, one of the work's co-commissioners, cancelled its planned staging without explanation back in the early '90s and the only one in the US since then took place a few months ago at the Opera Theater of St Louis (read review here).

In a statement that ENO has just put out, Adams has this to say:
"ENO has become the home for my operas in the UK. I count myself a very lucky composer to have such an artistically progressive company in my corner. ENO has already introduced Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic in powerfully committed performances and I expect nothing less from Tom Morris's new staging of The Death of Klinghoffer which has every promise of being provocative, humane and deeply imagined. London audiences are my ideal listeners - sophisticated, musically literate, enthusiastic and of course a little bit insane. I look forward to being among them for the premiere."
His introduction to his opera and its performing history on his site,, is well worth a read. Meanwhile, I only hope that our London audiences won't prove too "insane" to give the work a listen and judge it objectively on its own merits.